Blog Tour: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

A thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

A new novel by Lisa See is always something to celebrate, and her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, is a fascinating and absorbing addition to the author’s list of achievements. Told through the perspective of Li-yan, a young Akha girl in a family of tea pickers in a remote Yunnan village, and later by her daughter, Yan-yeh (Haley), who has been adopted by US parents, this is a story of families and traditions and of finding out who you are.

As with other books by See, the history contained in this narrative is fascinating. Li-yan’s family are, by their location and status, poor ethnic minorities who have remained comparatively untouched by the Cultural Revolution and all its policies. They still live by ancient traditions and practices, and live a difficult life filled with hard work.  When Li-yan falls in love with and becomes pregnant by a young man from a neighbouring village, she is forced to leave her village and secretly give birth to her daughter. Defying tradition that she kill the “human reject”, she travels to the city to leave her daughter at an orphanage where the young baby is soon adopted by an American couple. Li-yan marries her young suitor, only to watch her marriage fall apart and she is soon widowed at a young age. Determined and intelligent, she perseveres and works hard to better her life, eventually utilizing her experience and education to find specialized work in Pu’er tea industry. The descriptions of tea collection and processing are detailed and absorbing, and reflect centuries of experienc As a result, the historical background of tea makes up a significant part of the first section of the book and reverberates throughout the rest of the story. When Haley is left with the orphanage, she is accompanied by an ancient tea cake, something that will spark her own interest later in her life.

Haley’s narrative begins with an epistolary descriptions of her life – doctor notes, letters, spelling lists, etc. – before she finally begins to take control of her own narrative. Her curiosity about her background echoes that of so many adopted children from other countries, and she searches for self-acceptance, aware that she was unwanted at birth by her own parents, but the source of happiness for her adoptive parents. This contrast to Li-yan’s personal narrative style  illustrates the gap between mother and daughter, and the difference between the two women and their connection to their own history.

One thing that always fascinates me with See’s books is her ability to write incredible female relationships. Li-yan’s relationship to the women around her – her mother, grandmother, best friend, and others – defines who she is, and their connection and advice is what gives her guidance during her most difficult times.

“You are my daughter,” she picks up. “You and I are connected by blood. We are also joined by this grove and your daughter. When you were gone, not a day passed that I didn’t worry about you. And not a day went by that I didn’t know you would come back.”

This connection is sacred and spiritual for the women, and it provides Li-yan with the strength to move forward with her life. Time and again, the author compares the relationships between mothers and daughters to that of the trees that provide the precious leaves for tea. The mother tree present in the secret grove where Li-yan gives birth to her daughter becomes a symbol of strength and endurance. The parasites and other foreign objects that attach themselves to the tree demonstrate how it is able to adapt and survive and thrive, much like the women in Li-yan’s family. Haley has the love of her adoptive family, but she is missing this matriarchal connection, and searches for it for the latter part of the book. I did enjoy how Haley’s adoptive father was an arborist and that it was revealed that Haley connected with him over trees, much as Li-yan’s female relatives found strength from the mother tree.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is rich in historical detail and a powerful female-centric narrative. See expertly combines the historical significance of the tea industry with the modern complexities of international adoption, all the while creating characters of strength and determination. Fans of her previous works will not want to miss this new book, well those new to her writing will be drawn in by her compelling narrative style. Additionally, I would strongly recommend watching author Lisa See’s fascinating explanation on why she decided to tell this story. Interested in reading more? Check out the excerpt below for the taste of chapter one.

A copy of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada as part of this blog tour, but does not affect my opinions of the book in any way. It is available for purchase from your favourite independentonline and bricks and mortar bookstores. ISBN: 978-1-5011-54829, 384 pages.


A Dog on the Roof

“No coincidence, no story,” my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night. I don’t know how many times my mother has recited this praising aphorism during the ten years I’ve been on this earth. I also feel as though I’ve heard versions of First Brother’s dream many times. A poor farmer carries freshly picked turnips and homegrown soybean sprouts to the market town to barter for salt. He takes a misstep and tumbles down a cliff. This could have ended in a “terrible death” far from home—one of the worst things that can happen to an Akha person—but instead he lands in the camp of a wealthy salt seller. The salt seller brews tea, the two men start talking, and… The coincidence could have been anything: the two men are brothers, separated at birth, and have been reunited; the salt seller will now marry the farmer’s daughter; the farmer’s frightful fall protected him from being washed away in a bridge collapse. This time, the farmer—First Brother in his own dream—was able to trade with the salt seller without having to walk all the way to the market town.

It was a good dream with no bad omens, which pleases everyone seated on the floor around the fire pit. As A-ma said, but in the shorter words of someone older and respected, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another. Otherwise, as she’s asked me when I’ve questioned her about it, why bother? People and animals and leaves and fire and rain—we whirl around each other like handfuls of dried rice kernels being tossed into the sky. A single kernel cannot change its direction. It cannot choose to fly to the right or to the left nor can it choose where it lands—balanced on a rock, and therefore salvageable, or bouncing off that same rock into the mud, becoming instantly useless and valueless. Where they alight is fate, and nothing—no thing anyway—can change their destinies.

Every morning begins the same way. A-ma and my three sisters-in-law wake when it’s still dark, prepare the fire, pick edible weeds to flavor our soup, and heat water for the tea we make from large, broad, old, yellow leaves picked from inferior trees that were left standing when our house was built. It’s taboo for the men in my family to enter the side of the house where A-ma, my sisters-in-law, their children, and I spend our home time. That is a place for us to spin cloth and prepare food. So we meet in a central room for our meals, although my sisters-in-law are not allowed to sit with my a-ba or eat in his presence. Cold wind blows through our bamboo walls. The open fire struggles to light the gloomy corners and heat the room, and the smoky air fills my lungs and stings my eyes. We eat, and like all families that live in villages on Nannuo Mountain, our parents listen to the dreams of their sons and try to make sense of what the night has told them—a warning that evil is lurking or a hint that propitious news will be arriving shortly. Second Brother is next in line to tell his dream. It is so-so. Third Brother recites his dream, which is less than so-so. No bad omens but nothing auspicious either.

A-ba nudges me with his elbow. “Girl, tell us a dream you had last night.”

“My dream?” The request surprises me, because neither of my parents has asked this of me before. I’m just a girl. Unimportant, as I’ve been told many times. Why A-ba has chosen this day to single me out, I don’t know, but I hope to be worthy of the attention. “I was walking back to the village after picking tea. It was already dark. I could see smoke rising from household fires. The smell of the food should have made me hungry.” (I’m always hungry.) “But my stomach, eyes, arms, and legs were all happy to know I was where I was supposed to be. Our ancestral home.” I watch my family’s faces. I want to be truthful, but I also need to be careful, for every dream holds danger.

“What else did you see?” A-ma asks. In our village, power and importance go in this order: the headman; the ruma—the spirit priest—who keeps harmony between spirits and humans; and the nima—the shaman—who has the ability to go into a trance, visit the trees God planted in the spirit world to represent each soul on earth, identify which one is ailing, if it has pests, if it has disease, and then determine which incantations should be used to help. These men are followed next by all grandfathers, fathers, and males of any age. Secretly, for women and girls, the most important person in our village is my a-ma. She helps those who wish to get pregnant, are having difficulties with their pregnancies, childbirth, or nursing, need to care for a fussy or sick baby or child, or hope to fulfill the requirements needed for the post-menopausal ceremony. As the midwife, she has permission to perform certain rites and mix medicines made from things she finds in the forest—leaves, bark, and roots, teeth, bones, and feathers. She’s well known on Nannuo Mountain, and worried men from other villages often arrive in the night to ask her to help their wives. She always goes, slipping on her cape, securing her bags and pouches, and trotting out the spirit gate to hurry to the side of a woman in need. Sometimes, when men and boys get sick and the ruma and the nima have been unable to help, a wife or mother will come to our door for one of A-ma’s medicines to help with insect bites, stomach upsets, or malaria. Wherever she goes on our mountain, she’s praised for her ability to interpret dreams.

The silver balls that decorate her headdress tremble, catching the firelight. I can tell by the way the others have their heads bent over their bowls that they’re nervous for me. This moment of recognition is prized, but I don’t want to ruin it for my family or for myself by telling them that I dreamed a dog stood on our roof, alert, his snout pointed upward, his tail erect. We allow dogs to live among us for three reasons. They are essential for sacrifices, they warn us about bad spirits, and they are good to eat. To me, the dog in my dream looked as though he were guarding our village, and seeing him made me feel confident that I would make it home safely. But the Akha people believe that a dog on the roof, whether in real life or in a dream, is a bad omen. Dogs are not human, but they live in the human world. They are not of the spirit world, but they have the gift—and curse—of seeing spirits. When you hear a dog howl or bark in the night, you know he has spotted a spirit and hopefully scared him away. When you discover a dog on the roof, you know that a spirit has sneaked past the spirit gate which protects our village and is now among us. Nothing good can come from this, and another saying thrums in my ears. If your first word is not true, whatever you say later will not be true.

“Answer me, Girl,” A-ma says, pushing her silver bracelet with two dragons facing each other nose to nose up her wrist. “What else did you see?”

“The whole family was sitting outside,” I reply, as though I’ve given the dream my deepest consideration and have been searching for the best words to impress my family during their special acknowledgement of me. “Every person had a chicken to eat.”

“Every man and woman got to eat his or her own chicken?” First Brother scoffs.

“And all the children too! Every single person had a whole chicken—”

“That’s impossible! Meaningless! A fabrication!” First Brother looks at A-ba indignantly. “Make her stop.”

“So far I like her dream,” A-ba says. “Continue.”

I hadn’t expected that I’d need to tell more, not when I’ve already given a description of the best dream I could imagine. “I saw birds in a nest,” I go on uncertainly. “The babies had just broken through their shells. The a-ma bird tapped each one gently with her beak. Tap, tap, tap.”

A moment passes as my parents and brothers ponder this addition. A-ba glances at A-ma, waiting for her interpretation. As her eyes search my face, I try to keep my expression as still as a bowl of soy milk left out overnight. Finally, A-ma nods approvingly.

“Counting her babies. New lives. A protecting mother.” She smiles. “All is good.”

A-ba stands up, signaling that breakfast is done. I’ve gotten away with my lie. I don’t feel happy about it, but I tell myself I’ve prevented my family from the worry my dream would have caused them. I lift my bowl to my lips and slurp down the last of my soup. It contains no meat or chicken. We’re too poor for those luxuries. If you called our breakfast “flavored water,” you would not be wrong. A few bitter mountain leaves slip into my mouth along with the fiery broth. Chili flakes burn their way down my throat to my stomach. For as long as that heat lasts, I’ll feel full.

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